“Andi, is everything all right?” Riley called, wrinkling his nose as smoke assaulted him when he stepped through the door. He took his hat off and hung it on a nearby peg as he hurried into the kitchen, brow furrowed in concern.
Red-faced and puffing, Andi glanced up from where she pulled something indistinguishable out of the oven. She set it on the table and stared at it, wiping wisps of hair out of her face with the back of her hand. Planting a hand on her hip, she motioned to the black mess. “I’ll never be able to bake a cake right.”
Riley smiled and approached his wife from behind, placing his hands on her shoulders. “I don’t mind—long as you don’t starve me.”
She flapped a hand toward the array of apples and cold sandwiches on the table. “If you never need anything fancier than this, I think I can manage that.” She sighed, her voice shaking as if on the verge of tears. “We’ve been married for six years and the only thing I can make right is still... sandwiches.”
Riley chuckled and opened the kitchen window, fanning the dark cloud outside as best he could with his bare hands. “Not true. I love your—”
“Daddy!” A high-pitched squeal interrupted him, preceding small footsteps charging into the room, and soon Riley was nearly knocked over by a three-year-old body slamming into his legs. Small arms appeared and wrapped around his knees, causing Riley to grab the back of a nearby table to keep from toppling to the floor.
A small girl, face lit up with a smile, followed her little brother. She wrapped her arms around her father’s legs—above boy’s limbs—and stared into Riley’s face.
Riley scooped his children into his arms, planting a kiss on each dark head. “Have you two been good for your mama?”
Everett’s large blue eyes lit up, and he nodded. “Me an’ Susie been playin’ soldier,” he declared.
Riley’s smile turned to his daughter. “Have you been having fun, Susannah?”
The girl nodded wordlessly, grinning, then began to cough, fanning the air in front of her.
Riley chuckled. “Why don’t we go eat outside while the smoke clears?”
Andi nodded her consent and, grabbing the bowl of apples, headed out the door. Riley quickly set their children down, then picked up the platter of sandwiches and trailed along behind.
After stepping under a large oak, Andi stared ruefully at the ground. “I forgot a blanket.”
Shrugging, Riley dropped to the dirt, balancing the pile of sandwiches on his lap. “Doesn’t matter, ’long as we get to the food before the ants.”
Andi chuckled and plopped down beside him. Everett’s grubby hand reached for an apple, nearly upsetting the bowl in the process.
“Whoa there, Everett,” Andi gently smacked his hand, then grasped it, holding it close to her face for inspection. “I thought I told you to wash these hands, mister.”
Everett grinned sheepishly and shrugged.
Sighing, Andi handed the bowl of apples to Susannah and stood, grabbing Everett’s hand. “C’mon, let’s go do that now. While we’re at the house, I’ll get a knife to cut one of those apples up for you.”
Chuckling, Riley glanced at his daughter. “He’ll never learn that he can’t get things past your mother, will he?” Susannah grinned and shook her head.
As his daughter’s attention shifted to things only she could see, Riley studied her. The sun glinted off her coffee-colored hair, framing her freckled face with curls escaped from matching braids hanging behind her ears.
Clad in Andi’s old overalls, her legs took turns swinging her boots to scuff the ground absentmindedly. The pools of melted chocolate serving as her eyes seemed to constantly either have a far-off look in them, or a mature seriousness rarely found in the eyes of a five-year-old.
A cool touch to Riley’s face caused him to start, realizing his mind had wandered. He caught her hand in his. “Catch me staring, huh?” Chuckling, he pressed a kiss to her slender fingers. “Susie, you’re beautiful.”
She smiled shyly, face reddening, and in reply promptly kissed his cheek, careful not to let the bowl of apples slip from her arms.
Grass rustled behind them, and they both turned to see Andi and Everett approaching. The mother’s mouth twisted in a triumphant smirk, the son’s shoulders slouched in defeat. A chuckle escaped Riley’s lips. “Poor Everett,” he murmured. “Never had a chance.”
The boy didn’t stay upset for long; as soon as he spied the stack of sandwiches on his father’s legs, he dashed forward on his short legs and snatched one off the pile, stuffing as much as he could into his mouth.
“Hey now, you know better than that.” Riley gently took the sandwich from his son’s hands, lightly slapping the boy’s fingers. “You know we pray before anyone eats.”
Everett extended his bottom lip in a pout. “San’ich.”
Riley chuckled. “After the prayer, Son.” Once everyone was situated on the lawn around him, he bowed his head and closed his eyes, smiling when Everett scolded Susannah for sitting on his hand. “Father,” he began, “we thank You for this beautiful day to eat outside and enjoy the gifts You have given us. Help us to use these gifts for Your glory. In Your Son’s name, amen.”
“Eat!” A chubby hand reached for his sandwich once again and brought it to his mouth. Half of the stuffing flopped out of the bread and fell to the ground.
“Everett, if you’re not careful, you’re just gonna be eating bread.” Chuckling, Andi gently took hold of the sandwich in his hands and held it, giving him bites when he needed them. “Never let it be said that you weren’t aggressive.”
Eyes sparkling, Susannah grinned at her little brother from where she quietly munched on an apple, leaning her head on her father’s arm. Riley patted her leg, then when she looked at him, wiggled his eyebrows. “Whatcha thinkin’ about, Susie?”
She tilted her head in thought, set her half-eaten apple down on her lap, and commenced to make a series of made-up signs with her hands. “Everett isn’t much like me.”
Chuckling, Riley shook his head in agreement. “You and your brother are about as alike as night and day. But there’s nothing wrong with that.” Laying back, he folded his hands behind his head and let out a contented breath. “Mama, you sure can make a mean sandwich.” Susie nodded in agreement.
Andi looked up and smiled her thanks, then returned to cutting an apple for Everett, who grabbed the slices and ate them as fast as she cut them, until finally Andi showed him the apple core. “All gone, see? You ate it all.” Her mouth twitched, and she quickly added, “with a little help, of course.”
Everett grinned, patting his stomach. “Go p’ay?” Without waiting for an answer he took off running.
Sighing, Riley shook his head. “Susannah, go with your brother. If anyone can keep him out of trouble, it’s you. Just make sure to stay away from the creek.”
Grinning, Susie stood and dashed after Everett. The two disappeared out of sight around the corner of the house, and Riley looked at his wife, lips quirking. “Still enjoy being a mother?” He asked, eyes twinkling.
Andi bit into an apple and smiled. “Of course.” She chewed slowly and swiped at the juice dripping on her chin with her sleeve. She glared at the stain that appeared on the fabric, then grinned sheepishly. “Old habits die hard, I guess.”
Riley shook his head, chuckling. “One of the many reasons I love you.”
“I’ll admit, Susannah was a bit easier—well, maybe a lot easier—to manage than Everett,” Andi said slowly, returning to the previous subject. “But also one of the hardest children to raise.” She stared at the apple in her hand. Riley nodded in remembrance.
When Susie cried, she never wailed; the tears would just roll down her cheeks soundlessly, her large eyes pools of misery, and her inability to talk allowed her parents to only guess her needs.
“Oh, how I wish she could talk,” Andi whispered. Her gaze lifted to Riley’s face, tears gathering in her blue eyes. “I look at her playing with Everett, and I can tell that she does, too. Heaven knows that Everett talks enough for both of them, but…” her voice trails off.
“It’s not the same.” Riley’s soft smile matched his voice. “I know.” He didn’t voice his thoughts, his regrets. Regrets that, as far as he knew, he would never hear his baby girl’s laugh, never hear her sing, never hear her say, ‘I love you.’
“She’ll always be your little girl.” He could hear the smile in Andi’s voice. “No matter what she can or can’t say, it’s obvious in the way she looks and acts around you; she adores her daddy.”
Riley sat up and grinned. “What did I do to deserve a wife that pretty much knows my every thought?”
“I like to multitask.” Eyes sparkling, Andi wiggled her eyebrows. “Not only is a mother required to have eyes in the back of her head, but she also has to be able to know when her children are lying, and thus becomes a mind reader.” Her eyes turned thoughtful. “If our next child is, well, like Susie... will you be sorry?”
“Never.” Riley smiled. “The Good Lord gave us a priceless gift when He gave her to us, even if she can’t talk; I’d be the happiest man alive if I had ten kids just like her.”
Andi opened her mouth to reply, then stopped, staring into the distance. “Riley, look.”
Riley turned, then frowned. Susie, running full tilt, crossed the spacious yard, eyes opened wide with fright—or was it terror? He set the now-empty sandwich tray on the grass beside him and quickly rose to his feet, then ran to meet her. “Susannah, what’s wrong?” He demanded, grabbing her arms and staring into her face. A worm of dread wiggled its way into his gut. “Where’s Everett?”
She opened her mouth, trying hard to speak, but no sound came. Finally she pointed in the direction of the creek and grabbed Riley’s hand, tugging frantically.
“Oh no.” The lunch he had just devoured settled in a hard, cold lump in Riley’s stomach. “Susie, did he fall in the creek?”
The girl spread her hands and shrugged.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” He squatted down until his eyes rested on the same level as hers. “Susannah, what happened?”
Her hands began to fly through a series of motions, and it was all Riley could do to keep up. “You were playing with him, plenty far from the creek… and you lost sight of him? Susie, how’d you manage that?” He ran his fingers through his hair, scanning the area around them. “How could you lose him in our own yard?”
She shook her head in bewilderment, lips parted and forehead creased. Her eyes filled with tears and spilled over, and her chin quivered.
Riley sighed and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m sorry, Susie; I know you tried.” Why did we have a five-year-old babysit her brother in the first place? “Don’t worry, we’ll find him.” God, help us find him. And please, keep my son safe.
Riley’s fear rose into near-panic. The sun’s position, no longer directly overhead, told of the time that had elapsed. Still they searched. He’s not in the barn, corral, house, or yard. His heart nearly stopped. That leaves only one other place.
His feet turned toward the creek and took off at a rapid speed. That boy knows to stay away from there. “When we find him, first thing I’m gonna do is tan his hide, then teach him how to swim,” he muttered. “No matter if he’s three or twenty-three.”
The trees nearly hiding the stream from view waved slightly in the breeze, as if to beckon him to search their depths. “Everett!” Riley called, then repeated it, over and over again. Where in the world is he? He stepped to the creek bank and scanned the foliage, then began walking upstream, still calling his son’s name.
Finally he heard it. Faintly, then louder as his steps quickened. “Daddy? Daddy?”
Riley broke through a bush and there, on a small sandbar, lay Everett, his foot caught in a root protruding from the ground.
“Oh, Everett.” Riley rushed forward and gently untangled the root from Everett’s boot, then gathered his son into his arms, blinking back tears. “I was afraid I’d lost you.”
Everett wiggled. “Down.”
Riley tightened his grip. “No you don’t, mister. You made me miss out on half an hour’s work because of your disobedience. I don’t think you’re going to get away that easily.” Thank You, God, for keeping him safe.
“Andi, I found him!” Riley called, carrying Everett into the house.
Andi appeared from the kitchen almost immediately and let out a sigh of relief, sagging against a doorpost. “Thank God,” she whispered, eyes closed. Stepping forward, she took Everett from Riley’s arms. “You’d better go talk to Susie,” she told Riley. “She feels terrible about what happened.”
Riley nodded, then turned toward the stairs, taking them two at a time until he stood in front of the room Everett and Susannah shared. He knocked softly on the door, then turned the knob and stepped inside. “Susie, may I come in?”
She looked up from where she sat on her bed, streaks of tears decorating her cheeks, and nodded, then returned her gaze to her lap. Riley lowered himself down next to her, then drew her into his lap. “Susie, what’s wrong?”
She sat still for a moment, then, raising a hand, pointed a finger at herself.
Riley frowned. “You? What’s wrong with you?” Realization dawned. “Do you blame yourself for what happened to Everett?”
She sighed and nodded.
“No, Sweetheart, you can’t do that.” He tucked a finger under her chin and pulled until she looked at him. “Susannah, listen to me. That boy has a mind of his own, and as soon as your back was turned, he took advantage of it and disappeared. But I found him, Susie. He’s all right. He’s downstairs with your mama.”
She gave him a halfhearted smile, then turned to stare out the window.
“Hey.” He gave her a gentle shake. “Look at me. Honey, your mother and I love you more than words can say.”
Susie’s lower lip trembled, and her hands flashed back and forth. “If I could talk, you’d love me more.”
Riley’s brow settled into a frown. “What? No, Susie, I couldn’t love you more even if you were bald as a billiard ball.” He chuckled, then tweaked her nose. “Like I was just telling your mother earlier today, I’d be the happiest man alive if I had ten of you.”
A sudden thought struck him. “Wait a minute…” he set Susie on the floor and walked to the door, then turned back, wagging a finger at the girl. “You get all notions of that nonsense out of your head, young lady.”
Sprinting down the stairs, he followed the sound of voices until he found Andi scolding Everett in the kitchen. “Andi…” he leaned against the doorframe, tilting his head. “What did you mean when you asked me earlier about our next child?”
She looked up and smirked. “I was wondering when you’d figure it out.”
“You mean…” his eyes widened, and a grin slowly spread its way across his face. Suddenly he jumped and threw his fist into the air, filling the house with a whoop loud enough to cause the windows to rattle.
Andi winced. “Riley, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a prospector that just struck gold.”
“I feel like one.” He rounded the table, wrapped his arms around her waist, and gave her a resounding kiss. “I’m the richest man alive!” He turned and, seeing Susie standing in the doorway, bewilderment written across her face, he picked her up and tossed her in the air. “Susie, you’re gonna have double-duty babysitting now.”
Susannah’s tearstained face broke into a smile, and she wrapped her arms around Riley’s neck. “I love you.”
Riley’s eyes widened, and he pulled back to look into Susie’s eyes. “Susie… what did you just say?”
She looked as surprised as he felt. She opened her mouth to speak, yet couldn’t.
“No matter.” He grinned and pulled her close again. Thank You, God. Not only was he gaining another child, but Susannah, his mute baby girl, had given him the three words that were like music to his ears.
Even if she never spoke another word as long as she lived, he’d never forget the sweet voice that had whispered in his ear.